• April 18, 2006
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    Jerusalem Old City packed with Christian pilgrims for Easter
Jerusalem Old City packed with Christian pilgrims for Easter The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, celebrated mass in the dark, incense-filled interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where many Christians believe Jesus was nailed to the cross, buried and rose again. As the leading Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, Sabbah led black-robed priests into the church singing the Lord's Prayer.

"This is like a dream come true for us to be here in the Holy Land," said Rona Arida, 29, a Filipino worker in Israel, after praying with her friends at the church.

In the walkways of the Old City's Christian Quarter, Palestinian vendors sold Jesus figurines carved out of olive wood, painted Armenian pottery and fresh-squeezed orange juice. In one shop, a German woman argued loudly with the Palestinian owner - who answered her in Arabic-accented German - over the price of a necklace with a silver cross.

Nuns clad in black brushed shoulders with Orthodox Jewish women in long skirts and covered hair, pushing children in strollers toward the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, part of the compound of the biblical Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

About 90,000 tourists are visiting the country for Easter and Passover this year, up 20 percent from last year, Israel's Tourism Ministry said.

In an effort to ensure a safe holiday period, Israel clamped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, but Christian Palestinian clergy with special permits were allowed to enter to celebrate Easter.

Easter falls during the seven-day Jewish holiday of Passover, when Jews celebrate their biblical flight from bondage in Egypt.

"It's special to be here now, where the Jews are celebrating Passover and the Christians are celebrating Easter," said Maria Andreucci, 72, from Rome, near a long line of tourist buses outside the New Gate entrance to the Old City. "Everything is so modern here, but in our hearts we can imagine how everything happened here so long ago."

Before sunrise yesterday, Yonas Grossman, 18, a German pilgrim, marched with hundreds of Christians in the traditional procession from the Mount of Olives into the walled Old City. Later the red-haired, lanky volunteer at a Jerusalem hospital went shopping in the Old City. "At home it's the real Easter, but here it is really strange," Grossman said. "Here we didn't look for Easter eggs."

Later this week Orthodox Christians, who follow a different calendar from the Western Church, will flood the Old City's streets to celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday according to their own tradition.